Sunday, May 18, 2008

A good man’s incarceration

The year was 1986. There were two unusual visitors that I often received in my official home. I was District Collector of a predominantly tribal district in Chhattisgarh called Rajnandgaon. Their calls were initially in connection with seeking a just way to end a long deadlocked strike in the town’s only large textile mill. But over time, they often came also just in a fledgling comradeship, as we sat in the spreading lawns; my one-year-old daughter frolicked and we spoke together of many things: our lives, friends, family, our dreams, convictions and the inequalities and injustices of our world.

The older of the two men was a revolutionary of exceptional charisma, vision, courage and integrity. He dreamed fiercely of social and political change wrought from the fires of solidarity in struggles of factory, mining, contract and farm workers. The younger was exceptionally handsome, intelligent and articulate: a youthful doctor from one of the country’s finest medical colleges, who was not only his older comrade’s trusted adviser, but also had helped set up a fine hospital for mine and contract workers in a small mining town called Dalli Rajhara in the district Durg.

Today the older man is dead, felled by the bullets of hired killers of local industrialists who were bitterly opposed to his leadership to workers who had risen to demand their rights. He is remembered for affirming that sangharsh (struggle) must be complemented by nirman (constructive work); and has grown into an inspiring icon of unswerving courage of convictions and of people’s struggles. His name is Shankar Guha Niyogi. The younger man, bereaved grievously by his mentor’s assassination, decided to remain in the hot dusty plains of Chhattisgarh and to dedicate his life to the people who inhabit it. It is in Chhattisgarh that he has served for a quarter century of his adult working life, as a doctor and respected human rights worker. He is today behind bars, imprisoned for the past full year, and facing trial for what many of us believe are fabricated charges of active support and assistance to extremist violence of the Maoist Naxalites.
Changed over the years

I moved on from Rajnandgaon to other districts, both in Chandigarh and Madhya Pradesh, and to responsibilities in the State government, and eventually left the civil service. But a part of my heart has always remained in the sal forests and paddy fields of Chhattisgarh, and I would often return to these over the years. In many of these visits, I would also touch base with my friend Binayak in his small apartment in Raipur, overlaid with books and papers. I saw him age, grow an untidy beard, become more quiet and reflective; but he always remained erudite, passionately engaged in political and development debates, and thoughtful. He was an undemonstrative but affectionate father of two daughters who grew up in an unusual activist home. His wife Ilina was his steady unfailing comrade.

He continued his clinical work as a paediatrician, and was elected President of the Chhattisgarh unit of the country’s leading civil rights’ organization PUCL (the People’s Union for Civil Liberties). In this connection, he often visited the jail in Raipur, and both ministered as a doctor and supported as a human rights defender many prisoners, including those charged with Naxalism. These visits were not in any way clandestine. They were made after informing local authorities and securing their due permission. It would seem obvious that one does not wage war against the State in the glare of official observation. But the State officials felt otherwise. We were all stunned and dismayed to learn that Binayak had been arrested on May 13, 2007. We believed that it was a dreadful mistake: it was surely only that a paranoid junior police official had over-reached himself. Better reason would doubtless prevail when the senior police and political leadership would realise the doctor’s true mettle, history and credentials. But the senior State leadership has instead chosen to defy the overwhelming surge of outraged public opinion from the world over, and the many support groups of his friends, admirers and alumni of his medical college (CMC, Vellore). The government persisted with their charges, claiming that his visits to the jail were as a courier of messages to Naxal leaders and as a terror strategist, to advance the bloody war waged by Naxalite extremists which has taken many lives including of numerous junior police personnel.
Troubling premise

The premise on which the State government is prosecuting Binayak is deeply troubling. I have been involved, for instance — with many other friends — in publicly protesting against, and defending the rights of men detained for many years under anti-terror laws in Gujarat, those killed in fake police “encounters” and those illegally abducted and tortured by police as suspected “terrorists” in Hyderabad. If the State feels that efforts by Binayak to defend the rights under law of people charged with Maoist violence amounts to not just sympathy but active criminal support to Naxalism, then the same logic must apply to all other human rights defenders as well. I would then be guilty of support both to terrorism and to treason. These charges have indeed been made about me from time to time by members of extremist Hindutva organisations. But it would be completely different if these charges are made by the State itself. As it happens, I am completely opposed to violence as a mode of political redress or resistance. But I equally dissent against and protest the institutions of the State circumventing legal processes to detain, torture and exterminate people the State claims engage in violence. The logic of Binayak’s incarceration renders me culpable as well, of terrorist crime.
A threat

I have met Binayak a couple of times in jail. He had lost weight and appeared lonely, but was stoic, even joked: it seemed he was trying to give solace to us rather than the other way around. His internment is not just a persisting injustice to a good man. It is a profound threat to democratic freedoms in this land

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